What If I Can't Learn to Love My Second Child as Much as My First?

The parent-baby bond is not always immediate, explains Parents.com's Ask Your Mom advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D. Here, she shares how your bond with your second child will develop just how it should, with time and love.

Illustration of two children holding hearts
Photo: Illustration by Yeji Kim

New Mom of Two

I have a 4-year-old daughter and a 3-month-old son. I’ve read so many posts about how your heart expands when another child is born and you’ll be amazed at how much more love you had to give than you thought possible. I do love my new son but it’s been three months now and the love I have for him is not even close to the love I have for my daughter. Is there anything I can do to increase the bond and change my feelings?

—New Mom of Two

Dear New Mom,

As anyone who has become a mother knows, we quickly discover that motherhood ends up with just as many myths as magic. I decidedly did not glow when pregnant. There were normal postpartum surprises nobody had warned me about and I thought something must be seriously wrong with my body. And most importantly, the mother-baby bond is not always instantaneous and magical.

From One to Two

When you have a second child, so much has changed since that first transition from having zero to one child. Most obviously, you have doubled the number of humans under your care and it's frankly a ton of work. You can't as easily switch off with your co-parent to recover your energy with non-child time. Once the baby finally doesn't need every ounce of you (literally), your older child is ready for more time and attention. Love may be able to expand, but the 24-hour day does not.

You have also had four years to form the mother-daughter relationship unique to both of you. You have gotten to know her as a little person with habits, character traits, and quirks. Whether you realize it or not, you have developed a rhythm of how you interact, which has worn the path of deep emotional attachment. Even if your heart did indeed burst at the sight of your daughter after her birth, I'm going to bet you can't really remember how much different your bond is now compared to then.

Release the Pressure

My first piece of advice is to see how it feels to release the worry about bonding with your son. The very act of worrying about it may ironically make it harder. I realize this seemingly simple suggestion may be fraught, as guilt seems to be hardwired into the mom brain. But if you can be gentle and forgiving with yourself about how it feels to be with your son, and allow this new bond to develop one day at a time without pressure on it to feel a certain way, you might be surprised at the closeness that develops organically.

Talk It Out

Another poison in the well of motherhood is we are all afraid to say things out loud lest others see us as "bad moms." But when we share more honestly with those we trust, we often find out how common our experience actually is, which goes a long way toward letting go of worry and guilt. Find trusted friends and family to talk to about how you are feeling, and their reassurance and support will hopefully influence your psyche more than misleading articles and posts that gloss over many parenting realities.

How to Bond

Most parents form healthy and secure attachments with their children simply by being available and responsive in natural ways during infancy and childhood. The minority of non-secure attachments typically occur in the context of abuse, neglect, substance abuse, and severe, untreated mental illness in caregivers. I bring this up to assure you that taking care of your baby's basic needs each and every day may feel mundane and less-than-special, but it's exactly what you both need to build your bond, in your own time.

To summarize decades of attachment research in the most concise nutshell ever, here are some key components to forming an attachment with your infant:

Eye contact. Look at him a lot—while you are talking, singing, playing, or just gazing at his scrunched-up face while wishing you could sleep more.

Respond to cries. But if you need to let him cry for a few minutes sometimes so you can finish your shower, that's really okay. What's important is that you are generally learning the meanings of his different cries, and giving him a response most of the time—hugs, food, a new diaper, or rocking and shushing to help the cry turn into sleepy silence. Over these repeated interactions, infants learn they can trust and rely on you to meet their basic needs.

Play. Peek-a-boo, gentle tickles to elicit those baby belly laughs, pretending to eat his itty bitty feet while smiling, and making funny faces all count. Fun can be a huge part of forming that secure connection between parent and child, as is stopping when you read cues that they are done (it's often as easy as no more eye contact or starting to fuss).

Take care of yourself. High stress not only makes it harder for you to be available to your baby, but your baby can also pick up on your stress and become fussier and more difficult to soothe, making it more stressful to take care of him! Do what you need for your own self-care by taking breaks and accessing all the support you can, even if that "support" is hiding in the closet with chocolate while scrolling Instagram.

Also, some babies are wired in a way that is more difficult to soothe, which can result in a loop of feeling like you aren't mothering "right," making it even harder to build the bond of your dreams. Sometimes, recognizing that this isn't your fault can help you be more responsive and therefore closer; when this is not enough, you can always consult your pediatrician for strategies.

The Bottom Line

You have the advantage of already mothering a beautiful bond into existence with your daughter. Trust that you know what to do, and with some time, patience, and simple baby-caring without worrying, this next bond will develop in a way that is just right for you and your son.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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